My Daddy’s name is donor

My Daddy's name is donorWhat’s it like to have an anonymous sperm donor for a father?

Many people think that because these young people resulted from wanted pregnancies, how they were conceived doesn’t matter to them. But … when they are adults, sperm donor offspring struggle with serious losses from being purposefully denied knowledge of, or a relationship with, their sperm donor biological fathers.

That’s the conclusion of a provocative research study that compared adults fathered by sperm donors with adults adopted as infants or raised by biological parents. It’s estimated that 30,000 to 60,000 children each year are fathered by sperm donors, and another 6,000 children are conceived by egg donation. By now there may be as many as a million American adults with a sperm donor for a genetic dad.

What’s not to like about a donor daddy?

Publicity for this study – fifteen major findings that were featured — included some neutral findings (donor conception is not “just like” adoption). But the emphasis was on decidedly negative conclusions.

The study reveals that, on average, young adults conceived through sperm donation are hurting more, are more confused, and feel more isolated from their families. They fare worse than their peers raised by biological parents on important outcomes such as depression, delinquency, and substance abuse.

Among the major findings:

• Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.

• Family relationships for donor offspring are more often characterized by confusion, tension, and loss.

• Donor offspring often worry about the implications of interacting with – and possibly forming intimate relationships with – unknown, blood-related family members.

• Donor offspring are significantly more likely than those raised by their biological parents to struggle with serious, negative outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse, and depression, even when controlling for socio-economic and other factors.

Infertile parents should “accept” their condition

The study comes from the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. The Center is headed by an opponent of gay marriage (David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem). One blogger describes the Center as “offering intellectual support for the superiority of traditional family values.”

One remarkable recommendation of the study is that parents who are infertile should rethink their desire to have children. Infertile parents should seriously consider either adoption or ‘acceptance’ of their condition. Educate yourself on the consequences of conceiving a child with donor sperm or eggs. In other words, the authors are saying, our study shows that if you choose sperm donation, your child is likely to be depressed, delinquent, and a drug abuser. You would be much better off not bringing a child into the world.

”Natural conception” vs. “scientific technique”

Discussions of the study in the blogosphere have featured the finding that children of sperm donors are more likely to be sperm donors themselves. It turns out that twenty percent of adults with sperm donor fathers have already donated sperm or eggs or been a surrogate mother. The corresponding numbers for adopted adults and adults raised by biological parents were zero percent and one percent, respectively. Over 50% of donor-conceived adults said they would consider such actions.

This finding was featured in the fifteen major findings. The study’s authors – who were active in the blogosphere discussion – used this fact to argue that their results were not biased and did not express a conservative point of view. But if you think about it, featuring this finding is quite consistent with the goals of the sponsoring institution, the Institute for Family American Values. The Institute aims to increase the number of children born to families with two parents who are married to each other. More specifically, it advocates reducing non-traditional conception through greater regulation and scrutiny of reproductive technologies. From the Insitute’s perspective, if the children of gamete donors overwhelmingly perpetuate the practice, that’s one more reason to increase regulation and scrutiny.

A different take on this finding was voiced at Strollerderby:

[A]n unusual conception may encourage people to think longer, and harder, about questions of identity, biology and family that many of us are able to dismiss. But even though the lives that spring from sperm donation may be highly examined, a large number of the people living those lives seem to be willing to give others the same opportunity.

For further discussion of this study, see The New York Times editorial by conservative columnist Ross Douthat (note the language: “[the] burdens … inherent to a process that replaces natural conception with scientific technique”) and the letters published in response to the editorial. There’s also a lengthy discussion at Slate.

Among the letters to the Times was this one from a past president of a branch of the American Psychiatric Association:

[A]dvocacy-group reports like this one are rarely subject to blind peer review, a minimum requirement for scientific objectivity.

Without critical feedback from scientific peers, such reports usually support the pre-existing prejudices and assumptions of the authors or the organization financing the work. These “studies” offer little scientific understanding of the complex issues involved.

Ditto that.

Update 6/20/10:

Interesting interview at The Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies with a participant in the study, Alana Sveta. She is the child of a sperm donor, has a sister adopted from Korea, and a brother with two biological parents. The comments include the interviewer’s reply to the study’s author, who claims The Institute for American Values is not a conservative organization:

While I realize that you and your founder David Blankenhorn do not see your advocacy of “one-mommy-one-daddy” parenting, and opposition to gay marriage and gay parenting, as conservative, I’m afraid the rest of us do. …

That includes for instance the Catholic Church, which is championing your “study” as evidence of the harm that the unholy abomination of assisted reproduction does to children, and why it needs to be shut down. …

As I believe my conversation with the charming and intelligent Ms. Sveta showed, entirely contrary conclusions can be drawn from the fact that some people fetishize genetic bonds between parents and children. That is, parents who make use of sperm donation and then treat those kids differently need better values, just as homophobic parents, or workaholic parents, or racist parents need better values. You prefer to blame the complaints of some of these kids on their mom’s reproductive decisions, while I prefer to blame society.

Related posts:
A raffle for free (human) eggs
Links of Interest: Sperm donors, egg donors, and surrogates
Is it OK to eat and drink during labor?
Do children really need chocolate baby formula?
Babies are individuals: Don’t fret the milestones
Padded bikini bras for seven-year-olds
Baby Isaiah’s parents expect second child


Photo source: Family Evolutions

Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval Glenn, and Karen Clark, My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived through Sperm Donation, Family Scholars,

Karen Clark and Elizabeth Marquardt, The Sperm-Donor Kids Are Not Really All Right, Slate, June 14, 2010

Sierra, Sperm donor kids actually just fine, thanks, Strollerderby, June 14, 2010

KJ, Adults conceived through sperm donation are 20 times more likely to donate sperm, eggs or wombs, Strollerderby, June 1, 2010

Ross Douthat, The Birds and the Bees (via the Fertility Clinic), The New York Times, May 30, 2010

NYT response letters, A Family, No Matter How It’s Created, The New York Times, June 4, 2010


8 Responses to My Daddy’s name is donor

  1. Thank you for writing on our study.

    You got the name of my organization wrong the second time you used it.

    The mission of my center at that organization is to increase the proportion of
    children growing up with their two married parents, that is true. However, we do not as our mission have a stand on reproductive technologies or gay marriage, as two issues you cite. Scholars among us and those we bring together hold different points of view.

    You misquoted the recommendation you discussed later in the post. The recommendation reads as follows: “For would-be parents: educate yourself fully and consider not
    conceiving a child with donated sperm or eggs. We fully sympathize with the pain of inferility and the desire to have a child. We also ask that if you are considering having a child this way, you avail yourself of all the available information about it’s impact on children, young people, and their families of being conceived this way. Please consider adoption, or acceptance, or being a loving stepparent, foster parent, aunt or uncle, or community leader who works with children. There are many ways to be actively involved with raising the next generation without resorting to conceiving a child who is purposefully destined never to share a life with a least one of his or her biological parents.” (p. 79)

    Those conceived through sperm donation are told to accept they will never know their biological father. It is not unreasonable to ask those who consider conceiving this way to avail themselves of ample other ways to raise children.

    Regarding the letter to the NYT, no medical professional organization in the US has seen fit to study the adults who were conceives this way. I welcome them to do so. I hope they will.

    Elizabeth Marquardt
    co-investigator, My Daddy’s Name is Donor
    vice president for family studies, Institute for American Values

    The full 140 pp report is available free at

    • Thank you for writing. I’m sure you understand why there has been such a widespread negative reaction to this study.

      I’m baffled by the quotation “Infertile parents should seriously consider either adoption or ‘acceptance’ of their condition. Educate yourself on the consequences of conceiving a child with donor sperm or eggs.” I didn’t make those words up and put them in quotation marks. I copied them from one of the PDF documents (I read the entire report). But they are now nowhere to be found, either in the PDFs or anywhere else on the Internet (except authored by me). “For would-be parents: educate yourself fully and consider not conceiving a child with donated sperm or eggs” and “Please consider adoption, or acceptance” certainly express the same intention of accepting infertility in order to avoid reproduction that does not meet the criteria of natural conception.

  2. To be honest, you’ll also have to admit there has been a widespread positive reaction to the study as well. See for example New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Irish Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Los Angeles Times “Booster Shots” health blog…etc….

    • One of the frightening things about the world today, especially when it comes to scientific topics, is that journalists believe they must present “both sides” of an issue to achieve “balance.” If we don’t get the science right on climate change and antibiotic resistance, how we reproduce will be the least of our concerns 100 years from now.

    • I discovered the source of my misquotation. Before writing my post, I had made a lengthy document into which I copied portions of the full report. I summarized the recommendations, however, in my own words. In going back to that document several weeks later, I mistook my paraphrase for a quotation. My mistake. I apologize.

  3. You say that Alana Sveta was “a participant in the study.” Just wanted to clarify that although Elizabeth interviewed Alana Sveta for the narrative of the report and she is quoted in the report, she’s not a study participant (i.e. she wasn’t one of the 485 donor offspring surveyed). In endnote 27 of My Daddy’s Name is Donor, the authors explain that “Quotations from donor offspring not otherwise cited come from interviews conducted by Elizabeth Marquardt with these persons….”

    Just wanted to clear that up.

  4. Elizabeth, I have not read your study. I never really thought about the morality of creating children through artificial insemination until a Catholic priest sent a link of an article of a woman who was conceived through artificial insemination. She talked about what it was like growing up and not having the choice of knowing who her father was. Then when she got a chance to meet him he wanted nothing to do with her because he was only a sperm donar. Since I read that article, it has totally change my views on this issue. I now cringe every time I hear women saying that it is their right to have a child and will do whatever it takes to create one.